The Politkovskaya case: not Russian to conclusions

I was going to post earlier … but got waylaid doing media work responding to news that Binyam Mohamed is finally getting out of Guantánamo. Good news though.  

Meanwhile, what to make of the acquittals in Anna Politkovskaya case? It’s hard to fathom. Certainly the case looked badly handed (there’s a good account in the Guardian of the general sloppiness of the trial).  The accused, most people believe, were either minor players (and deliberate fall-guys) or maybe had nothing to do with her murder.

I can’t pretend to know what’s going on and I won’t be rushing to conclusions. What’s absolutely obvious though is that delivering justice in this case is still an acid test over whether the Russian authorities have the political will to defend human rights in this incredibly important country. 

A personal reminiscence. When I met Anna Politkovskaya (the once) a few years ago, I was struck by her demeanour. It was at a (slightly) glitzy Amnesty awards event – fittingly enough, one honouring journalists who do human rights work (she was getting an award). In my PR-y way (well I do work in the media team), I went over to ask her if she’d be okay with the Amnesty photographer getting a few photos of her during the evening. She didn’t look thrilled. “Right, she’s pretty stern”, I thought. “Not much fun. God, the things I have to do for Amnesty”.

In fact, from what I’ve since gathered, she was a pretty austere person. Serious. A bit like the Western stereotype of Russians. But then again, investigating atrocities in Chechnya and is perhaps best done a John Pilger type and not your fluffy media party type. It’s just not a Soho House thing.

Back in 2006, when an Amnesty colleague rang out of the blue on my mobile to tell me that Anna Politkovskaya had been killed, I was walking (on holiday) through some Parisian streets with my girlfriend (who actually really admired Politkovskaya). It was stunning – very hard to believe.

Killing (or effectively allowing the killing of) those that defend the human rights of others is a well-known tactic of repressive states. Journalists and lawyers get killed because they’re symbolic targets. This appears to have been the point with the lawyer Stanislav Markelov’s murder last month. (And he and Anna P are far from being isolated examples in Putin/Medvedev-era Russia). 

The Russian legal expert Bill Bowring was on The World Tonight last night (about 10.30pm-ish) saying that half the Kremlin is ex-FSB, with Medvedev being one of the few exceptions. Bowring was at pains to point out that some aspects of the Russian legal machinery (jury trials, sometimes) actually function reasonably well in the country, but with the dead hand of political gangsterism/corruption at work, some things do not. The investigation into this journalist’s mysterious death appears to be one of them.

Wih the investigation into Anna Politkovskaya’s sinister murder now in complete disarray it’s fair to say that it’s the Russian state itself that’s currently on trial.

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